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Understanding The Chemistry Of Beef Flavor

How does beef get its flavor? Meat is generally composed of water, proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins.

How does beef get its flavor? Meat is generally composed of water, proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins. Of these, proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates play primary roles in flavor development because they include several compounds capable of developing into important flavor precursors when heated. The factors that contribute to beef flavor, according to the July-August "Issues Updates" from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association include:

  • Cattle diets -- High-energy grain diets produce a more acceptable intense flavor in red meats than low-energy forage or grass diets. More than 40% of the variation in beef flavor between grass- and grain-finished beef, unaged and aged, is attributed to diet.
  • Aging -- Unaged beef has a weak, bland odor, while aged beef has a strong, savory, roasted odor. The conditions (oxygen availability, temperature, humidity and aging time) in which beef is aged affect the ultimate flavor. Aging in a high-oxygen environment can result in a burnt, toasted off-odor. In addition, dry aging increases or concentrates beef flavor more than aging in a vacuum or in carbon dioxide.
  • Enhancements -- Brine injection, or enhancements, can improve the sensory quality of beef. Enhancement solutions often contain a form of phosphate to retain moisture, as well as salt to enhance flavor. Enhancement solutions can also contain flavor enhancers and ingredients. Enhancement generally ranges from 6-12% of initial product weight.
  • Off-flavors -- Oxidation of meat lipids damages both odor and flavor of fresh, cooked, stored (refrigerated or frozen) and reheated meat resulting in rancid and/or warmed-over flavor. Oxidation can be initiated by light, heat, metals (iron and copper), myoglobin (the major pigment in muscle which contains iron) and some commonly used food ingredients. Cooking beef prior to storage accelerates lipid oxidation, which results in the warmed-over flavor. Warmed-over flavor can develop in precooked frozen meats in a few days.
  • Heating -- Heating develops flavor via browning, or maillard, reaction. Cooking temperatures affect these reactions. Heating at lower temps vs. higher temps results in a difference in the concentrations of a number of flavor compounds. In addition, cooking appears to affect umami- (a taste described as savory) related compounds by reducing the amount of free glutamate (amino acid) present. However, it's usually associated with cooked meat that's been refrigerated for 48 hours or less.
The checkoff-funded research reveals the secrets for a successful steak are in a combination of careful animal handling/feeding, proper aging, injections and good cooking.
-- National Meat Association Lean Trimmings newsletter